New Statesman OCTOBER 4, 2007 - by David Smyth


After more than forty years of experimentation, Robert Wyatt's unique sound is more accessible than ever before.

Robert Wyatt's lone Top of the Pops appearance must have made for strange family viewing. It was September 18, 1974, just over a year after a drunken fall from a third-floor window had left him paraplegic, and there he was, in a light blue kaftan, eyes shut, rocking back and forth in his wheelchair, miming Neil Diamond's impossibly chirpy I'm A Believer.

That was Wyatt's first and last awkward flirtation with the mainstream in more than forty years of musical experimentation, a career in which he has pioneered English psychedelia with his band Soft Machine and worked as a solo artist with everyone from Pink Floyd and Mike Oldfield to Björk. His only other Top 40 single was a heart-rending version in 1983 of Elvis Costello's Shipbuilding, an anti-war ballad notable for being oceans away from the froth of the rest of the charts, rather than a compromise for the masses.

With the bearded maverick now in his sixties, his unique sound is more accessible to a new audience than ever. In 2004, he popped up with The Streets, Basement Jaxx and Amy Winehouse on the Mercury Prize shortlist for his last solo album of new material, Cuckooland. Although he didn't win he certainly merited the award for his forward-thinking music, regardless of the usual dominance of twenty-somethings on the list. His appearance in such youthful company, coupled with his self-deprecating pleasure at getting any acknowledgement at all from the industry establishment ("A few extra albums will pay for a much-needed disabled bath room") made Wyatt a hip name to drop once more.

Which is why he finds himself an unlikely new lodger - releasing his follow-up, Comicopera, on Domino Records, home to those guitar-toting whippersnappers Franz Ferdinand and Arctic Monkeys. Domino was once a typical tiny indie label, its founder Laurence Bell licensing obscure American albums for UK release from his flat in Putney. The record-breaking Arctic Monkeys have done for it what Oasis did for the Creation label in the 1990s, giving Bell the financial freedom to sign anyone he wants. That he chose a sixty-two-year-old who records most of his music in a bedroom in Louth, Lincolnshire, is a strong sign of the continuing importance of Wyatt's single-minded songwriting.

Not that the singer is about to join his label-mates in the realm of million-sellers. Like most of his past work, Comicopera is fascinating, but difficult listening, veering between great beauty and free-jazz discordance. It has the three-act structure, if not the sound, of opera (although there is some singing in Italian). The five songs of "Act I: Lost in Noise" feature lyrics by Wyatt's wife, Alfreda Benge, who also painted the album artwork. Two of her tracks, You You and Just As You Are, are strikingly personal, the latter a gorgeous duet with Mônica Vasconcelos in which a woman tolerates her man's many flaws over slinky double bass, piano and understated guitar by Paul Weller. "Should I leave? Should I stay? / Should I call it a day? / There's so much to say that's unspoken," sings the female voice, to which Wyatt replies: "There may come a day / When I'm weak and stupid no longer." That day may finally have come this year - since he completed the new album this life-long drinker, who says he finds it virtually impossible to write a song without a bottle of wine and a packet of fags to hand, has joined Alcoholics Anonymous.

"Act II: the Here and the Now" shifts from the personal to the political, but is not without lighter moments. The instrumental On The Town Square is pretty enough to make you wonder why there haven't been more duets between saxophone and steel drums. A Beautiful Peace is a swaying, country-style acoustic number on which Wyatt observes the everyday with a wry eye. Be Serious is finger-clicking jazz, Wyatt's voice heading towards the jolly cockney end of his range, though the opening lines hint at the more serious place we are travelling towards: "I really envy Christians / I envy Muslims too / It must be great to be so sure."

The lilting piano and layered vocals on A Beautiful War, co-written with Brian Eno, make for the poppiest song here, which renders lines such as "It's a beautiful day / For a daring raid" even more unsettling. Then comes the key song, Out Of The Blue. Sung from the perspective of the person being bombed on the previous track, it features squalling horns, stabbed synths, Eno's voice computerised to sound terrifying, and the repeated line "You've planted your everlasting hatred in my heart".

After this, for "Act III: Away With the Fairies", Wyatt is so appalled with all the warmongering that he removes himself from that world altogether. He sings the rest of the album in Spanish and Italian, often abandoning any sense of conventional song structure. "I wanted to disassociate myself from the English-speaking trajectory abroad," he has said. This section includes Fragment (which is some of the earlier Just As You Are, played backwards), freeform xylophone on Pastafari and a return to grooviness with the Latin piano of the closing track, Hasta Siempre Comandante.

Holding together the vast scope of Comicopera is his marvellous voice, a thing of broad range and expressiveness, still so delicate and childlike that even now it sounds as if he is opening his mouth to sing for the first time. Even when the music is at its most jarring, his tones sound beautiful and humane. Whether singing I'm A Believer or about faith wars, Wyatt remains one of the most distinctive artists in Britain, and he deserves the largest audience possible.